Wednesday, July 18, 2007



The first Lego building bricks, called the “automatic binding brick”, were originally designed in 1949 by Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen, also a toy maker, who founded the Lego toy company in 1932. During 1930s~40s the Lego Company focused on manufacturing wooden toys, including a series of traditional building blocks. In 1947 the Lego Company bought a plastic injection-molding machine and applied the new material and technology for their toy design - the plastic building brick system was one of the improvements during this period . It was the beginning of a great toy design. Although, some academics still argue that the original design was a copy of Kiddicraft’s Self-Locking Building Brick designed by Hilary Fisher Page of Great Britain , it was still a great breakthrough of Danish toy industry at that time. However, it did not sell very well and was even derided in a Danish trade magazine mentioning, “Plastics will never take the place of good, solid wooden toys! ”The modern Lego brick system was once again born in 1954, after Godtfred Kirk Christiansen (GKC), son of Ole Kirk Christiansen, attended a toy fair in Great Britain. There, he took the suggestion of a buyer and started to design a comprehensive toy system that can encourage creativity in children, delivering higher quality and play value . The new building brick was offered for sale in 1958, and was thus the beginning of the modern Lego -“Lego System of Play.”


A Lego is a hollow rectangular piece of plastic with several studs on the top. The underside is open with a row of tubes that help the brick lock stably with another piece easily, but not so tight that they might be difficult to take apart. The original Lego in 1958 included ten different sizes, the most representative being 1 1/2 inch long, 5/8 inch wide, and 3/8 inch high, with eight studs on the top and three tubes inside and typically call the 2x4 Lego brick. Each brick is a one-piece injection molding of ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) resin. It is a typical modernist design with very simple geometric forms of the rectangular and the cylinder, offered only in black/white or primary colors, and with every detail of its shape having a specific function. There are no unnecessary decorations except the tiny logo of the company identity on each stud. Nowadays, the Lego name has become synonymous with the building block.


The original ideas of the modern Lego System of Play were drawn by GKC in 1954:
Unlimited play potential
For girls and boys
Fun for every age
Year-round play
Healthful, quiet play
Long hours of play
Development, imagination, creativity
The more toys, the greater their value
Extra sets available
Quality in every detail

According to these ideas, the building brick system should be able to break the barriers of sex, age, and cultural comprehension, and create a great timeless play value. The new system could also stimulate the imagination, passion, and creativity of young children, and keep their interest for the long term. It is a great idea to transform children’s play into serious education value without diminishing its amusement or entertainment value. Indeed, the Lego System of Play meets the principle of modernism; it crosses the boundaries of culture, race, and language. Over 60 years, the Lego System of Play has been sold in over 125 countries around the world, and in 1980 a survey showed that over 70 percent of Western Europe families with children under age 14 had Lego building bricks at home. GKC has fulfilled his original design ideas, and found a perfect solution of toy design in modern society.
The material of Lego building bricks is obvious. It is a piece of plastic, and every shape and detail is based on its functions simplified to the minimums; a typical model of “Forms Follow Functions” design which is under the aesthetics principle of modernism. Besides, the underside of the brick is open; people can easily see the internal structure and understand how to play with it. A Lego building brick perfectly represents the truth of its material, structure, function, and ideology. It is a spotless beauty.


After World War II, although of greatly improved quality, plastic was still a fairly new material in the toy industry and was not well accepted by most consumers yet. Lego broke through the barrier of material, using cutting edge technology to produce toys. Therefore, the Lego Company could quickly manufacture a large quantity, and made the toys available at a reasonable price. Actually the concept of mass production was easy to understand, since GKC wanted to make his business profitable. Hence, it was inevitable to apply a high-tech method of manufacturing. Although it was easy to reach this conclusion, but the most difficult part was how to control the quality of each building brick accurately. The outcome was very impressive in that each brick is manufactured within a tolerance of 2 μm to ensure bricks can be assembled together tightly enough to stay together, but not too tight as to be difficult to take apart. Besides the inherently high accuracy of the molding processes, the injection machines are also equipped to monitor and detect fluctuations automatically. Defects too subtle to be automatically detected are examined by a quality-control technician. According to the high quality-control requirements of production, a building brick made in 1958 can easily join with another one made in 2007. In the factory, technicians control the quality so precisely, that only one percent of raw material becomes non-recyclable waste.8


The goal of play with the Lego bricks could be a car, a skyscraper, or a kind of creature that nobody has ever seen before. However, the true purpose of entertainment with Lego is aesthetic, spiritual, and abstract. Olaf Thygesen Damm, for 25 years an in-house philosopher on the Lego system’s theory and ideas, was in charge of the publishing department of Lego Futura and narrated,
"If we look at the pure Lego idea- what is Lego? It is a various number of components in different shapes and colors, with the possibility of combining them in many, many ways. There is no end to the combinations. What we are really giving children are opportunities to be active in a meaningful way- this is the basic idea. "
It is true, if we take three pieces of 2x4 Lego bricks with the same color, and join them together there would be 1,560 different combinations.8 If we use the different colors, there will be more and more different possibilities, and these countless combinations will make any kind of creativity and design in children’s mind possible. Through assembling the Lego bricks, children approach their original design idea, put their imagination and creativity into practice, and feel satisfied with the achievement. Therefore, if you have ever seen children concentrating on assembling their Lego bricks hour after hour, you can understand that they are not just playing with the building bricks, but they are also constructing their spiritual kingdom.

From the viewpoint of aesthetics, Modernism is a power going straight forward, and always looking for better solutions to deal with the problems and obstructions which people encounter in modern societies. Its designers are charged with providing the perfect solutions to solve the problems. Therefore, design could become a different type of solution, education, ideology, or even a philosophy. By using these well designed products; consumers can improve their consciousness to make our world a better place. In this case, GKC provided an ideology and a philosophy for toy design, instead of a literally perfect solution.
The basis of Lego building bricks was definitely abstract, a rectangular form with primary color. From this viewpoint, the design idea of Lego bricks is similar to some manifestos of modern art, for example, the new plastic Art/De Stijl; everything is deconstructed into an abstract and geometric form. But it is just the first half of the story of Lego bricks, the second half is based on their customers, our children. They assemble the bricks together like reconstructing a puzzle. The answer is only known by themselves. At last those Lego bricks are not abstract anymore, they have become a precise design idea, maybe simple but powerful. The Lego building brick system is not only a successful modern design; in the first half, it is the same as any of the other ideologies of modernism in that everyone gets the same building bricks, but through the imagination and creativity of children’s minds, we will never see the same result in the end. Thus it is beyond the concept of modernism.

Further Reading
♦Paul Greenhalgh, Modernism in Design, Reaction Books, London, 1990.
♦Henry Wiencek, The World of Lego Toys, Harry N. Abrams, INC., New York, 1987.

External Links
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